#42: Kiss of the Spider Woman
(Brazil/USA, 1985; dir. Hector Babenco; cin. Rodolfo Sanchez; with William Hurt, Raul Julia, Sonia Braga, José Lewgoy, Milton Gonçalves, Nuno Leal Maia, Fernando Torres, Herson Capri, Denise Dummont)
IMDb // My Full Review

Do titles get any better than Kiss of the Spider Woman? When I first heard about the movie, reading over the lists of Oscar nominees in the local TV Guide—it was the last year before I actually watched the telecast—I couldn't imagine why anyone wouldn't vote for it, or how a movie with that title could be anything but hypnotic, dangerous, creative. When a poster appeared under a "Coming Soon" placard at the single-screen theater of the U.S. Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, I marveled at the exotic graphic design, the enticing indigoes and aquas of the central image, the diagonal affectations of the fonts. When I learned at the beginning of high school, amid the faintest inner whispers about my sexual dispositions, that the story concerned a gay man and a political radical sharing a prison cell in South America, and that the Spider Woman was one of several fantastic movieland figures that the window-dresser described as vicarious pleasures for the Marxist, I knew I had to find the movie. I didn't know what either a window-dresser or a political radical was. Even as I gobbled the movie three or four times during my five-day rental allotment from Mr. Video in Hanau, Germany, I never quite absorbed Valentin's role or perspective. Even as I read the superlative novel, and then performed Molina's opening monologue in theater classes and local drama competitions, my hold on the story was only half-formed, tipped voluptuously in favor of one of its protagonists. Only in college, during my almost annual returns to this story I thought I knew so well, did I start to comprehend not only that a whole second movie awaited my discovery, rooted in forms of protest and discrimation that I had only begun to grasp, but that my early adoration of the film, which hung (I thought) with such sophistication on the shoulders of a young teenager, floated atop a complex network of projections, evasions, narcissisms, misreadings, and a rather blithe giving over of myself into the most comfortable aspects of fantasy.

And so Kiss of the Spider Woman, a film in which I had recognized glimmers of myself with such early and total astonishment, stunned me just as much by calling out my naïvetés and myopias—not from some new or rejected frontier of knowledge, where I was used to being shocked or upbraided by life, but from an already treasured and intimate object. It's no mystery to me how Babenco's film sets this sort of trap, at least for a certain kind of viewer. Where the early sequences are lusciously cinephiliac, with their mocking but affectionate recreations of dubious melodramas, and their willowy transitions from that universe of screen memory to the clammy, witty, and exciting reality of the jail cell, the later sequences assert their politics more forthrightly, with the hard lighting, strained faces, and tightened editing of other Latin American political dramas, like Luis Puenzo's The Official Story or Babenco's own magnificent Pixote. Fans who take Molina's epicurean escapism at nearly face value, as I did, are likely to feel like the second hour sells them out. The seductions of John Neschling's music or Patricio Bisso's versatile costuming don't evaporate as the film reaches its grave climax, but they shape-shift in a way that requires a full immersion in every side of what Babenco, working from Puig's ingenious template, has constructed up to that point. Almost by definition, the movie divides its sympathetic audience of marginalized liberals, forcing them to recombine by movie's end in a richer, more expansive spirit of solidarity: quite literally, and purposefully, less fabulous than the earlier chapters. It's a hugely ambitious journey that the movie takes, with impressive if erratic artistry. Nothing in the movie, not the acting or the editing or the camerawork or the story structure, is immune to miscalculation here or there, but Kiss also achieves substantial, flavorful successes in each of these areas. Best of all, because it is subtle and intelligent in raising questions about storytelling, spectatorship, sympathy, borderzones, clichés, stereotypes, and sexual politics—terrains where a great many movies start bonking you over the head, or else just flee in all the wrong directions—Kiss of the Spider Woman consistently surpasses its own flaws, challenges your own sureties, turning them all into productive questions rather than simple blemishes.

Kiss of the Spider Woman debuted the same year as The Purple Rose of Cairo, just a few rungs down on this list. Both movies understand and reward the unique devotions and pleasures of the passionate moviegoer, even as they dissect such devotion with an often uncomfortable accuracy. I learned even more from Kiss, and I feel even closer to it, because its range of themes and arguments is a little broader, and it humbled me from ever assuming that I've got any movie fully pinned down, no matter how much I love it or how many times I've seen it. Several of the film's pleasures are "simple": Sonia Braga is exceptional, Hurt and Julia have terrific moments, the screenplay's twists are truly surprising, and the whole movie looks and sounds great (especially for its low budget). It's a medicine wrapped in a morality lesson baked into a succulent dessert. When the damned thing ever finally arrives on DVD, we'll all have cause to celebrate. (Ed., 2008: Eureka!)

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